At 86 years old, Alanis Obomsawin is still full of surprises.
An acclaimed filmmaker, activist, and musician, Obomsawin is now a gallery artist – a career development she says she never saw coming.
“I couldn’t imagine, you know, that this would happen, and I just feel so honoured,” she explained.
Her first solo retrospective exhibition, An Artist and her Nation: the Waban-Aki Basketmakers of Odanak, opened last Friday at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
It’s the first time Obomsawin’s artwork has been featured prominently in a Canadian museum.
Initially picked up as a hobby several decades ago, Obomsawin’s flirtation with the printmaking medium resulted in the production of dozens of vegetable dye works, often printed on handmade paper.
She’s been known to carve printing plates on planes to pass time, and even completed one monotype print while in Kanesatake during the Oka Crisis, according to longtime friend and museum curator Hilliard Goldfarb.
“I discovered her prints about 10 years ago, and I bought two at the time,” Goldfarb explained. “I came to appreciate her unique manner of printmaking.”
“She’s always found a sanctuary, in a sense, in the way she could enter her dream world and her experiences and her life through the process – sometimes laborious – of creating these prints,” he added.
Along with pieces on loan from the Abenaki Museum in Odanak, Quebec, the exhibit weaves together a story of collective survival through craft-making.
“When I was a young child in Odanak, we had an earth road – there was no electricity. We didn’t have running water, we had a well,” Obomsawin explained. “And every house you went to, someone was making baskets. So sweetgrass, the odor of the sweetgrass is something that I miss, because as a little girl it was everywhere, and this was part of your life.”
These baskets, rocking chairs, and jewelry – a collection of which are displayed in the gallery – meant financial survival for the people of Odanak.
The prints themselves showcase personal moments and musings: dreamscapes, green horses, and myriad animal friends travelling by canoe, for example.
But they also shine a light on more painful moments of the artist’s life, including residential school, or a nightmare where she was buried alive in a cemetery.
“Maybe I’m crazy, I don’t know,” Obomsawin said. “It’s a world in me that has saved me.”
The collection of 40 prints and the accompanying art pieces from Odanak have already generated international buzz, and talk of a showing overseas.
But touring Obomsawin’s pieces won’t be without its challenges, according to Goldfarb.
“We have to keep [the space] under 50 lux, a very low light level, and also these prints can’t travel too much because fading is irreversible,” he explained. “Any loss is permanent.”
With a new film on child welfare set for release this fall, Obomsawin says she’s taking her latest artistic venture in stride.
“I mean look at me, when I was a little girl they used to call me a savage,” she told visitors touring the space. “I’d like if everyone who called me that could come here and see me now, see where that savage ended up.”